A sari for a month. It shouldn’t have been a big deal but it was. After all, I had grown up around sari-clad women in India.My mother even slept in a sari. I occasionally wore saris for weddings, holidays and to the temple. But wearing a sequined silk sari to an Indian party was one thing. Deciding to wear a sari everyday while living in New York, especially after ten years in western clothes carried my whimsy to the realms of the fantastic.
The first day was a disaster. The sari is six yards of fabric folded into a graceful yet cumbersome garment. Like a baby, it requires constant molly-coddling. When worn right, it is supremely elegant and unabashedly feminine. However, it involves sacrifices.
No longer could I sprint across the street just before the light changed because the sari forced me to shorten my strides. I had to throw my shoulders back and pay attention to my posture. I couldn’t squeeze into a crowded subway car for fear that someone would pull and unravel my sari. I couldn’t balance four grocery bags in one hand and pull out my house keys from a convenient pocket with the other. One evening, I lumbered around the apartment, feeling clumsy, constrained and angry with myself.What was I trying to prove?
The notion of wearing a sari everyday was relatively new to me. I didn’t wear saris while growing up in India and during my college years- when most Indian girls try out saris for the first time- I was in America. As an art student at Mount Holyoke, I hung out with purple-haired painters and rabble-rousing feminists wearing ink-stained khakis and cut-off T-shirts. During a languid post-graduation summer in Boston when I sailed a boat and volunteered for an environmental organization, I wore politically correct, recycled Salvation Army clothes. After getting married, I became a Connecticut housewife, experimenting with clothes from Jones New York and Ann Taylor. Over the years, I tried to talk, walk and act like an American.
Then I moved to New York and became a mother. I associated motherhood with saris. I wanted to play the part. I wanted to teach my three-year old daughter Indian values and traditions because she would be profoundly different from her peers in religion (we are Hindus), eating habits (we are vegetarians), and the festivals we celebrated. Wearing a sari everyday was my attempt at being a role model. It was my way of showing her that she could melt into the pot while retaining her individual flavor.
It wasn’t just for my daughter’s sake that I decided to wear a sari. I was tired of trying to fit in. Natalie Cole could never speak to me as eloquently as M.S., a venerable Indian singer. I couldn’t hum the lyrics of Lauryn Hill or Ricky Martin as easily as I could sing my favorite Hindi or Tamil songs. Much as I enjoyed American cuisine, I couldn’t last four days without Indian food. I was Indian after all. It was time to flaunt my ethnicity with a sari and a bright red bindi on my foreheadI was going to be an immigrant, but on my own terms. It was America”s turn to adjust to me.
Slowly, I eased into wearing the garment. I owned it and it owned me. Strangers stared at me as I sashayed across a crowded bookstore. Some of them caught my eye and smiled. At first, I resented being an exhibit. Then I wondered. Perhaps I reminded them of something- a wonderful holiday in India or a favorite Indian cookbook. Grocery clerks unconsciously enunciated their words when they spoke to me. Everywhere, I was stopped with questions about India as if wearing a sari had made me an authority. One Japanese lady near Columbus Circle asked to have her picture taken with me. I had become a tourist just steps from my home.
But there were unexpected advantages. Indian cab-drivers raced across lanes and screeched to a halt in front of me when I hailed them. When my 3-year-old daughter climbed high up the Jungle Gym in Central Park, I gathered my errant sari and prepared to follow, hoping that it wouldn’t balloon out like Marilyn Monroe’s dress. One of the Dads standing nearby watched my plight and volunteered to climb after her. Chivalry in New York? Was it me or was it my sari?
Best of all, my family approved. In her baby voice, my daughter ooh-ed and aah-ed when I pulled out my colorful saris. At night, when I cuddled her in my arms, scents of the vetiver, cumin, sandalwood and jasmine escaped from the folds of my sari and soothed her to sleep. I felt as if I was part of a long line of Indian mothers who had rocked their babies in this way.
Soon, the month flew by. My self-imposed regimen in a sari was coming to an end. Instead of feeling liberated, I felt a twinge of unease. I had started enjoying my sari.
Saris were impractical for America, I told myself on the last day. Impractical and constraining. Besides, a sari wasn’t really me. Saris and skydiving didn’t mix. I had better revert to my sensible khakis.
Perhaps after one more day.
This article originally appeared in March 2000.
Shoba what a lovely piece ! With the lovely flavors of living in New York and yes the whole magic of a sari . Now I’m tempted to follow suit , in a sari ! Even if I’m in Mumbai !
thanks Sonya. :)
Do you still wear saris in New York ? Do you still enjoy it ? I liked your piece…
As Madraskaari says, I live in Bangalore now, Jaishree. Yes, I wear saris and enjoy them, not everyday like my Mom but periodically
The author lives in Bangalore now…
Just for your information, this article was used for the entrance examination of the University of Tokyo in February 2012, and I really enjoyed reading this (although the professors of the univresity apparently modified some parts of it to adjust to the vocabulary level of the students). Japanese high school studnets are going to read your article for the next several decades to prepare for the exam. I am interested in what they feel and think after reading your article. Maybe, they will think about wearing Kimono once in a while.
Thanks for letting me know. I am really kicked about this. I trained to be a geisha and learned how to wear a kimono. It is a beautiful garment. I admire your culture very much.
Shoba – While rooting through old magazines, I came across this article in the March 13, 2000 issue of Newsweek. I enjoyed it very much. Unfortunately, someone had neatly cut out the picture in the middle. Do you happen to have the picture on your website? I would love to see it.
Hi Tasneem: It was a picture of me wearing a sari. And no, I threw out all my old magazine clippings a while back. Sorry!
Shoba, thanks for your quick reply. Sorry to hear you don’t have the picture anymore. It must have been a nice one for someone to cut it out. I checked out the rest of your blog – I have to admit I am hooked! You have a new fan.
Thanks, Tasneem. I see that you are in Chicago– one of my favorite cities. Jazz, nouvelle cuisine, down-to-earth citizens and Oprah! What more can you ask for?
I see that my response did not post for some reason. What I wanted to say is that although, alas, Oprah has virtually abandoned us, the wonderful old blues and jazz clubs, sumptuous world cuisine, and a spectacular cityscape keep us rooted in this city. We are in the middle of winter right now (brrr!), but I do love this town. If you ever come this way, please have dinner with us in our home.
Thank you, Anonymous. I wasn’t sure if the message was a spam, which is why it didn’t post. But your email id says Tasneem, so thanks for the invitation, Tasneem.
This piece is brilliant in that it affords a clear background for your desire to RTI.
The sari gave voice to the sentiment of “tired of trying to fit in”; your way of saying “I am an Indian woman, America, bow to me”!
I’m curious: would you have worn a sari to work if you were a lawyer or banker in NYC? (Yes a bit of repeating the original question in my RTI comments.) Indra Nooyi can afford it, but could she have afforded it when she was climbing the ranks?
Also, when people dumbed it down after noticing your sari e.g. enunciate words or ask after India (not NYC), did you reveal that you were, in fact, a New York woman just experimenting for a month?
The part where you “tried” to walk/talk/act American sounds, well, trying.
Appears as if the sari was the deep-hearted way of saying “I am done trying, I am an Indian and that is that!”
Just think about it.
To you the sari is “unabashedly feminine”, but is this sexist? (I am not arguing for merely argument’s sake; a whole generation of bra burning A-skirt doffing second wave feminists would violently agree and they proved it with fire. Literally.)
How do you feel about men wearing saris? The first thought that occurs is “aravani”, not gender equality. This dissonance is what I was referring to in my earlier posts (re religion).
You might argue the reverse (women in pants, jeans) is “equality”, or, in a weaker sense, convenience (pockets and whatnot). Many would agree this view is now culturally and socially endorsed.
What is my point? Saris are feminine. Certain mantras are masculine. It is not sexist or anti feminist because there is no law against either.
Like you said, a sari is “unabashedly feminine”; men should feel quite abashed wearing it. That is exactly my sentiment on certain mantras.
Just think about it.
Ok, Vinay. Will think.
I read your article 5+ years ago and it has stayed with me. Then in January 2021 I took on this challenge myself :). Lived in a saree for 31 days. Here is my blog on the experience – https://soumyapr.medium.com/31-days-in-a-saree-47bf8df9c4c4
Read the piece Soumya. Aerobics in a saree– well done. Medium makes it difficult to post comments– you have to sign in and stuff, else would have said this there. Thanks for the article.